Lars Kiel Bertelsen


The Faculty of Humanities

Department of Aesthetic Studies

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Lars Kiel Bertelsen

The Interface in a Visual and Historical Perspective

Viewed from the perspective of art history and the history of aesthetics, the interface marks both a radical break with and an extension of key understandings of what an image is. Interface culture is principally visual – i.e., its most important forms of expression are pictorial, but at the same time it is clear that this is a different kind of pictorial representation than the one addressed by classic disciplines of pictorial theory such as art history. The image we meet in the interface is an informational, programmed, coded, dynamic and, in a certain sense, "textual" image, one that is written (with code) and perpetually re-written (through the user’s interaction). The interface thereby challenges a large number of widespread basic assumptions about the nature of images and forces the disciplines of art history and aesthetics to reconsider these questions, which among other things have to do with the classical question about the relationship between word and image. This situation is unusually fertile, giving us the possibility to achieve new insights into the nature of the image, and the possibility to perceive the visual culture of at least the last two centuries through new eyes.

Viewed from the perspective of the interface, it is ever clearer that a number of the characteristics of the interface – such as its informational, programmed, coded and dynamic qualities – can actually be rediscovered or recognized in embryo in pictorial art, especially the parts of pictorial art engaged in the technological media developments of modernity. This applies in particular to photography, which – although it has often been regarded as an uncoded, static, analogue rendering of reality – can just as well be viewed as a “programmed image machine”, which like the interface shows us operations “inside” the machine rather than the reality “outside” (Vilém Flusser). It is hardly coincidental that one of the inventors of photography, W.H.F. Talbot, was close friends with Charles Babbage, the inventor of the first automatic calculating machine (traditionally regarded as a prototype for the modern computer). Only very recently did these observations regarding cultural history find their way into the history of photography and art (Geoffrey Batchen, James Elkins), but they constitute a productive starting point for studies aimed at demonstrating the often unacknowledged prehistory of interface culture.

The aim of this subproject is therefore twofold: at one and the same time to outline the contours of the cultural history of interface culture and to use the interface as a cognitive lens enabling us to see the images of former times through new eyes. Hence, the historical focus in the subproject extends “forward” and “backward”. I want to look at “the interface as a historical image” and at “the historical image as an interface”. The project further addresses issues raised in my book Fotografiets grå mytologi (The Grey Mythology of Photography) (Copenhagen 2000) and should result in a book with the working title Interface: det nye billede (Interface: The New Image).

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Revised 2010.02.17